September 24, 2016 Leave a comment
I was reflecting on the fact that many political conservatives are speculating about Hillary Clinton’s health; particularly, the idea she might have been covering up Parkinson’s disease for ten years.
This speculation has an unseemly air about it. For all I know, it may be true. Yet, generally speaking, we have an intellectual responsibility to be careful as to the beliefs we hold. One major problem with asserting a public figure has a certain illness is that due to limited access, it is hard verify by balanced expert testimony.
When Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964, many psychiatrists opined in public that he was crazy or otherwise unfit for office. Subsequently, the American Psychiatry Association implemented the Goldwater rule, which bars diagnosis of public figures in one’s professional capacity, particularly when being interviewed or speaking in public. I am unaware of such a rule for physicians, but since in Clinton’s case Parkinson’s disease tocuhes on cognitive ability, I think the same principle applies.
But what about everyday citizens? In this regard I think of many liberals and progressives who hold to the rumor that the end of, or even all of, Reagan’s presidency was impacted by Alzheimer’s. Again, these allegations as to cognitive ability inherently have a cheapness and air of disrespect to them, even if they turn out to be true.
So what then if one really believes these infirmities, whether of Clinton or Reagan, to be the case? On the one hand, we should hope that the medical professionals who attend a presidential candidate are honest and fully forthcoming given that a president’s health is essential knowledge for a democracy looking to entrust him or her with crucial executive judgments. On the other hand, since it is wholly possible that medical professionals may be less than forthcoming, the average citizen can be within her rights to speculate about the candidate’s health. Nonetheless, because election season is a very heated and pitched time, and such talk has an air of disrespect or cheapness to it, it is an area where I think it wise to put forth the view as tentative rather than firm, lest one be accused, perhaps rightfully so, of wishful thinking.
Incapacitations, Physical and Dispositional
One more thing I’d like to observe. It seems to me that if cognitive and executive capacities are fair game in conversation among citizens generally, then Donald Trump may well be as incapacitated as a chronically ill Clinton. Whereas one with Parkinson’s will be incapacitated by physical disease, Trump quite arguably could be incapacitated due to spiritual disease. What I mean is not a crude holy roller judgment. Rather, as a function of character or personal disposition, Trump seems to exhibit underdeveloped, or insufficiently actualized, capacities for self-restraint. Witness his late night tweets. He also seems to lack patience or wherewithal to do policy homework. Think of the primary debate where Marco Rubio goaded Trump for more health insurance policy substance than “lines around the states.”
By contrast, recall back to the primaries when Ben Carson was initially not well informed about foreign policy, but later showed increased knowledge. The simple ability to listen and learn, so as to acquire and apply new knowledge, is so important to the average American job, let alone the presidency. It is a testament to circumstantial privilege, perhaps being so inescapably beholden to his own inflated ego, that Trump could surf on his charisma, such as it is, to arrive where he is. Or we might say he has the vice of stubbornness, which amounts effectively to being unable to listen and adjust. At any rate, the story of skating to higher office is actually similar for President Obama and Hillary Clinton. The promise of an “articulate and bright and clean” black man, to use Joe Biden’s words, or the first female president, allows these people to sail quite far on whatever other privileges, skills, and connections they enjoy.
Back to Trump’s disposition. My emphasis on actualized or developed capacities, abilities, and habits, comes from virtue ethics. These are questions of character. Not just judgment, but discipline and habit. Conservatives often get slammed for suggesting that some people who are chronicly poor are so because of underdeveloped capacities acquired through discipline. But to observe the absence of discipline is not necessarily a moral judgment of blame upon them. They may be victims of circumstance. Yet it is true that their capacity is underdeveloped nonetheless. That’s why, whether one refers to the stereotype of the “Welfare Queen” or to Donald Trump, we should all want to encourage or demand the development of capacities, where they can occur. For Hillary Clinton, this would mean an increased capacity to be honest rather than covering up anthing that remotely makes her look blameworthy. But then again, for both Clinton and Trump, the maxim may hold that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Now it is true that since the primaries, Trump has come to deliver substantive policy speeches, which, while not necessarily principally conservative, nonetheless show he is capable of having substance issue forth from his mouth. But I do not see him speak with facility about these issues without a teleprompter.
So in the end, if Hillary Clinton does have some debilitating malady, it may well be that Trump has one as well. Would I rather the national debate be about policy substance rather than personal disabilities and defects.